Monday, Merv Johnson discussed his time as an assistant at Notre Dame. In the final half of his Q&A, OU’s director of football operations and color analyst for the Sooner Radio Network spoke with SoonerNation about his role in getting Troy Aikman to Norman, the best player he ever coached and his thoughts on the upcoming season:
Jake Trotter: You were the first one at OU to realize how special Troy Aikman was. How did that come about?
Merv Johnson: He was a kid from a small town over in Henryetta that really was a fine-looking specimen, all-around athlete, all sports and everything. Found out, we got him to agree to come to camp. I told Barry [Switzer], you need to look at him. Barry watched him throw, and that was it. There was no arm twisting. He watched him throw the football, and he was 100 percent sold.Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Merv Johnson was the first OU coach to see Troy Aikman throw the football.
Trotter: How did you hear about Aikman?
Johnson: He was kind of a local phenom over there, we get those things all the time. But once you go and eyeball him and see what a physical specimen he is, his personality, then you really get excited.
Trotter: Aikman is one of many Oklahoma kids who went on to great college careers. OU obviously has taken a more national approach to recruiting in recent years. But how important is it to still recruit the Oklahoma kids?
Johnson: It’s critically important. It’s hard. You want to recruit the best player available. When you break down the number of scholarships you have, it’s not very many. And then you count the positions on a team, it’s 22 positions and two kickers, basically. And you may be able to recruit only one linebacker, or two, as an example. And you want the best you can find. The best athlete, best player, the guy that you think can project the furthest. That guy might be off somewhere else, and there might be a pretty good one in Oklahoma. But you can only take one of them. It’s hard, it’s hard – the superstar that you’ve seen really makes you feel like you’ve got a shot. You hate to say, well, we can’t take you because we want to recruit this Oklahoma guy. By the same token, after a very short time, the way recruiting is so accelerated, the youngster in Oklahoma may say, well, they’re not interested in me, I’ going to go somewhere else. And so, it comes down to evaluation, and you can’t do a lot of that, because there’s only so many times you can go to their campus or their games. You have to do a lot of it by video. But you’ve got to collectively as a staff study that player, and make sure you’re OK if you can’t take the Oklahoma kid. You need those kind of guys that always love the program. But if their talent level is not the same, you have to get the best talent you can.
Trotter: So if the Oklahoma kid is even with the national kid, you suggest going for the Oklahoma kid?
Johnson: I think you’d go on it. It didn’t take them long to go on [Sam] Bradford, and guys like that. And I think they had an opportunity with camp here and him being nearby to see Bradford, the coaches recognized what a great future he had. That’s what you have to do. You can’t just let it slip by you that easily.
Trotter: Which OU team you’ve been around was the best?
Johnson: That’s hard. You could almost pick any of the three, '85, '86, '87 teams. I think until [Jamelle] Holieway and [Lydell] Carr got hurt at the end of the year in '87, that team had the potential to be the very best. Right up to the national championship game in Miami, we had to play the backup QB and Carr, who had been hurt, had missed the last two games and tried to come back and play. Because the guy who had taken his place had a tendency to fumble. I think that might have been the best team. Bob’s team in 2000 was really special, because I think there were 6 walk-on starters, and I think the schedule broke off awful nice for us that year. We did have the great game against Texas, Kansas State, Nebraska, bang-bang-bang, which just ignited everything. From the standpoint of maxing out the talent you had to work with, that probably had to be the best coaching job, and the best getting all you got out of what’s there, it really was. Probably those two teams. 85 was a really good team. But we did lose to Miami here when Aikman got hurt and Holieway came in, but it was too late in the game.
Trotter: What do you remember most about Bob Barry Sr.?
Johnson: The guy was just so nice to everybody. You had to be a real jerk to not like Bob Barry, I promise you. He was just so nice to everybody, so considerate. Bob had a great ability to laugh at himself. As he got older, he made a few more mistakes. He hated it but he had the ability to laugh at himself out of it. A lot of us can’t do that. We try to alibi out of it, we get angry, those kind of things. He was so helpful to me, because I really didn’t have a clue. He was such a great friend. The special memory I have is what a great guy he was, so helpful, so accommodating, all those kind of things. Came game time, he plugged it in and went with it. Of course when you’ve done it for 50 years, you ought to be able to do that.
Trotter: What do you think happened with this team last season?
Johnson: For whatever reason in the Texas Tech ballgame, not playing anywhere close – we almost caught up there at the end – but we played so poorly up until that time, that you can’t accept the fact you should have won. I think that created some doubt in some of our players. They ran the two wide receiver screens and they were just blocked perfectly and they just walked in and scored down the field. They threw the ball over the top of us. Just didn’t react and play like we had been all year. I think it maybe affected our confidence a little bit. Of course then losing [Ryan] Broyles and [Dominique] Whaley was a killer. They meant so much to our offense. By the same token, against Baylor we got off to such a slow start offensively. We were coming off like gangbusters at the end, but it was too late. You have a tendency to be critical of the defense, but the offense didn’t contribute much. It was the same with Texas Tech. I don’t know that you could make an excuse or alibi for anything, but that’s how it went. Losing those two players really hurt.
Trotter: Have you seen a walk-on make a bigger impact that Whaley?
Johnson: Not a better one. I really haven't. His problem was, he was a military youngster. Went to four different high schools, and he came in the new kid on the block in August. His senior year he gets to Lawton and Javon Harris is the tailback, established, he’d proven himself. So they put him out at wingback just because he was fast, and I bet he didn’t get the ball three times a game, so nobody knew anything about him. Langston took him because they knew he was a good athlete, and they didn’t play him as a freshman – they had their proven player back there. But once in the offseason you saw his 40 times, his vertical jumps, all those kind of things, and looked at him physically, you began to say, wait a minute, this may be somebody who was really overlooked. And of course in the spring game the year he was ineligible, he led the team in rushing. And came back and did it again the next year, where he was beginning to validate things.
Trotter: How did you find out about him?Jeff Moffett/Icon SMI
Dominique Whaley had nine touchdowns for the Sooners last season before injuring his ankle.
Johnson: He made the contact. You don’t call guys at other schools. He transferred here. The bad thing about it was he transferred in January, which means he’s not eligible for the next fall, he’s got to be here a year-and-a-half before he can play. You saw what he did in the spring game, but he wasn’t eligible that fall. It’s really unfortunate. The kid's been unlucky in a lot of ways. Well, he has. I think you have to be guarded because of the position he plays. If he were a lineman, he’d be fine. But to make all those moves and cuts, and walk away from people when you break, we’ve got to see. He’s worked really hard, I know that.
Trotter: It will be interesting to see how he's used coming off the injury. He’s so valuable, but you don’t want to overwork him, right?
Johnson: That’s the thing, he might contribute as much as anything. Maybe it’s not always with his running. But he understands (the offense), he’s very physical in his pass protection and he’s a very trusted receiver. It might be, if he’s not where he was a year ago quite – and he may be, he’s really worked – but if he’s not, he can still contribute so much, especially in the passing game with protection and catching the football and all that.
Trotter: How did you feel about this team coming out of the spring?
Johnson: I think that I would be guarded. I think the attitude was really good in the spring, they worked hard. But we’re making some transitions defensively. It kind of looks the same, but it is different. I think they did some things offensively that you really didn’t notice, that you’ll notice in the fall that will help them. There are some areas OU has to be concerned about. We lost those two great defensive ends. We’re going to really miss those guys. We have some experienced players and some young players that are pretty good, but I’m not sure they’re [Frank] Alexander and [Ronnell] Lewis. And Travis Lewis, he’s a warrior, he’s smart, been around a lot. As long as he was confident, the younger guys were confident. So we’ve got to rebuild a little bit there. Spring practice is over, I feel pretty good about it, but I think we’ve got a long way to go yet.
Trotter: Whaley made a big impact as a newcomer to the lineup last year. Which newcomers do you see making an impact this season?
Johnson: The young receiver, [Trey] Metoyer. That tight end [Brannon Green] will help us blocking a lot. We lost [James] Hanna, who was a good blocker, but he wasn’t a 260-pounder like this guy, like [Brody] Eldridge was. We’ve got two new backs [Damien Williams, Alex Ross] who are much bigger backs than we’ve had. When Whaley wound up getting hurt last year, we ended up with some little backs. And you see what Stanford and some of those teams with a big back can do, and that appeals to you, too, to what maybe they can contribute. They haven’t practiced a down yet, so. They’ve got some receivers coming that have a chance to really help. Sterling Shepard and [Durron] Neal and the junior-college guy, [Courtney] Gardner. Usually you see pretty good athletes in California junior college and they didn’t have anybody that could cover him or keep up with him, and he’s big. Those guys have potential. The offensive line can be pretty solid, if they’re all healthy. They’ve got three veteran defensive tackles, they should be OK. I’d say, maybe the most encouraging thing is their two kickers. [Michael] Hunnicutt has really put it together awful well for a redshirt freshman and we know what [Tress] Way can do. That’s been a thorn in our side for about five years. So that might be the best thing going.
Trotter: To you, what are the keys for this season?
Johnson: The key offensively will be an improved running game. Defensively, try to play sound. Play sound whether you’re trying to cover somebody or you’re coming on a blitz and you’ve got to pick someone up man-to-man and hang on for dear life. The thing that frustrated me last year with the defense, it just seemed like when it came third down, they made it. So many times. Somehow, you’ve got to get a sack, bat a ball down, make a play. It just seemed like when (opposing offenses) needed a play, they got it.